TOEWS, ANNA (Toews), midwife; b. 30 Aug. 1868 in southern Russia, probably in Gruenfeld, near Nikopol’ (Ukraine), daughter of Cornelius Plett Toews and Anna Bartel; m. 25 Dec. 1886 Peter Barkman Toews (d. 1945) in Hanover, Man., and they had 11 children; d. 26 Jan. 1933 in Ste Anne, Man.
Anna Toews’s father, representing the Kleine Gemeinde denomination of Mennonites, was one of 12 delegates sent from southern Russia to Manitoba in 1873 to scout for land. The following year, Anna, aged five, and her family joined the large Mennonite migration to North America [see Gerhard Wiebe*] and settled in the East Reserve, in Gruenfeld (Kleefeld), Man. In 1886, at age 18, she married her second cousin Peter Barkman Toews, a quiet and sociable widower nine years her senior, from Blumenort, also in the East Reserve. She moved to his village, where they farmed and operated his father’s sawmill. They would have 11 children; as well they would raise a daughter from Peter’s first marriage. In 1890, seeking better opportunities, the couple went to live in the prosperous Greenland district, southwest of Ste Anne, and in 1911 they joined a Mennonite settlement in Needles, B.C. After the land they had purchased in British Columbia proved worthless, they returned to Manitoba the next year in financial ruin. They were nevertheless able to acquire a small subsistence farm southeast of Ste Anne. Peter also worked as a delivery man for a local cheese factory. The couple spent their last years together in a small house constructed across the road from the family farm.
From the 1890s onwards Anna had served as a midwife to the Mennonites and to Métis neighbours. She received little formal training, but in 1892 she and two other local young women had been sent by their churches to study with a respected senior midwife, Justina Neufeld, in the Mennonite community of Mountain Lake, Minn. Armed with a reference book, an unrelenting personal drive, and a strong sense of divine calling, Anna soon became a trusted midwife. A biographer, Cathy Barkman, would note in 1997 that “whether people were wealthy farm or village residents or poor bush-dwellers without money, Anna felt that God had called her to help anyone in need.” Her handwritten birth registry records the delivery of 924 infants between 1893 and 1932. Stories of her commitment abound. It was said that she “would sit beside the bed of a woman about to deliver a baby for two days if need be.” Widely known as well were her abilities as a herbal medical practitioner, in which role she dealt with ailments such as sores and boils. Some accounts consider her a heroine; on one occasion she healed a haemorrhaging woman whom doctors had given up treating. She also prepared the dead for burial and issued official death certificates for the municipality. Her stepdaughter, Katharina, cared for the large family during her absences.
Known affectionately in Low German as Groute Toewsche, meaning “the large Mrs Toews,” a reference to her stature and plumpness, Anna was said to have been more outgoing than her affable and supportive husband. She drove their car, while Peter rode along to crank the engine for her. A photograph dated about 1912 reveals a large, confident woman, with a determined expression in her eyes, a kerchiefless head, and blonde hair pulled back tightly in a bun. Her friends spoke of her as “friendly, cheerful, generous, hard-working, busy and humorous,” and possessed of a keen mind. They remembered her wearing a simple black dress like other Mennonite women of the time, but hers was covered by a serviceable black apron.
On 17 Jan. 1933 Anna’s church newspaper, the Messenger of Truth (Moundridge, Kans.), informed its readers that “Sister Peter B. Toews, Ste. Anne, Manitoba, is ailing and suffering much with the fatal malady, cancer. The sister prefers to be with her Saviour, and is prepared to meet her God.” She died nine days later. Anna Toews would be remembered as one of the many remarkable midwives who practised in the rural Mennonite communities in Canada.
Man., Dept. of Healthy Living, Seniors and Consumer Affairs, Consumer and Corporate Affairs, Vital statistics agency (Winnipeg), nos.1887-001284, 1933-004378. Cathy Barkman, “Anna Toews (1868–1933): midwife,” Preservings (Steinbach, Man.), 10 (June 1997), pt.2: 50–53. Royden Loewen and Betty Plett, Blumenort: a Mennonite community in transition, 1874–1982 ([Blumenort, Man.], 1983). Mennonites in Canada (3v., Toronto, 1974–96), 1 (F. H. Epp, 1786–1920: the history of a separate people, 1974).